Pre-finals study tips

It’s finals season. We’re about halfway through the school year, and that means students are about to be tested on everything they’ve learned since the early fall. Whether you view finals as an opportunity to showcase how hard you’ve worked, or a major obstacle to your high school survival, here are some tips to make the whole process go more smoothly.

Stick to your routine

If you are someone who goes to bed at the same time every night, don’t stop now. If you always walk your dog at 6:45pm, don’t make your little brother do it just because you have finals. Stick to your routine as best you can – it’s been working for you so far. Remember that finals are a test just like any other. This is especially important to remember if you are normally a good test taker.

Look over previous tests/assignments

Many teachers recycle questions, or at least question types, when they write multiple exams. Looking over previous tests and assignments, especially in a cumulative class like Math or Chemistry, can sometimes help you to predict the sorts of questions a teacher will use. Use those resources to your benefit!

The other advantage to studying prior tests is that you realize your own mistakes. Getting an accurate picture of your own weaknesses allows you to isolate the areas you should focus on while studying.

Make a plan and stick to it

It’s very easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of stress and deadlines at a time like finals. Stress is at an all time high, and it’s easy to lose track of time. Before the big days get too close, make sure you give yourself time to budget out how much time you’ll need to study for each subject, and when you’ll do so. Take into account your extracurricular activities, and don’t sacrifice sleep unnecessarily.

Run your study plan by your teacher

Teachers love to hear that their student plan to work hard on their assignments. Once you come up with a plan of what to study when, run it by your teacher and make sure s/he doesn’t see any big problem with the topics you’re spending time on and how you allot that time relatively.

Keep in mind here that the way you ask the questions here is everything. Questions like “Here is my study plan. Am I overlooking anything that I should be focusing on?” are good. Questions like, “Will X be on the test?” are often bad, especially if the teacher already gave you a list of what would be on the test.

Avoid late night caffeine

Whatever your preferred caffeinated beverage is – energy drink, tea, or coffee – don’t drink it too late at night. While it’s definitely true that caffeine can boost your short-term energy level and concentration, it can also disrupt your sleep pattern. Yes, extra studying is good, but not at the expense of your focus on the big day.

Drink enough water

The human brain requires a good amount of water to function at its peak. Why? Because science. Stay hydrated to give yourself the best chance of performing at your highest level.

Form a study group

We’ll be posting in the near future about the pros and cons of studying in groups. For now, just know that your friends can help you by holding you accountable, filling gaps in your knowledge with what they know, and serving as a sounding board for your own ideas. Just beware that they don’t distract you, and that everyone is on the same page in terms of what needs to get done.

Take breaks and stay sane

All work and no play makes everyone absolutely nuts. Build short breaks into your schedule so you can keep a balance of sanity and productivity – but make sure you get back to work on time.

Looking for a professional study buddy this finals season? Contact us today!


Why the students who apply to 8 Ivies and Stanford are misguided

Harvard main gate.JPGWe hear about them every year: the few students across the country who sweep admissions to all 8 Ivy League schools and Stanford. These kids have achieved a remarkable accomplishment. With admission rates ranging from 5.2% to 12.52%, Ivy League schools present a significant challenge to any student. Most students would be lucky to get into just one. No doubt these students who get into all 8 are incredible, talented young men and women who will see success in many endeavors. But they’re terribly misguided.

Think about it. Columbia and UPenn are located in two of the top 5 most populous cities in the country. Cornell is in upstate New York, while Princeton is located in a small town in central Jersey. About 4300 undergraduate students attend Dartmouth. Cornell? Over 3 times that. At Harvard, for two years nearly all of your instructors will be graduate students – it’s the only Ivy where it is quite that common to have a grad student instructor. Greek life reigns over the social scene at Dartmouth. At Princeton, there are co-ed “eating clubs” and no (social) fraternities or sororities in sight.

None of these characteristics alone make any one Ivy better than another. In fact, more or less the only thing all Ivy League schools have in common is that they are excellent schools.

But, when it comes down to it, you should be applying to schools that fit. Let’s say you have the choice between two pairs of shoes: one is shiny and new, the other decrepit and torn. If the new pair is size 6, and the older pair a size 10, guess which shoe will be more comfortable? The one that fits.

There isn’t a torn shoe in the Ivy League. But even if they’re all shiny and new, they’re still different sizes. They are in different environments, have different areas of expertise, different academic policies and priorities, different structures of social life, differences, in short, that will determine what type(s) of person they “fit.”

But no college automatically makes your feet uncomfortable, so why does college fit matter? If all that mattered from your college experience was the name on the piece of paper at the end, then of course every student would want to go to the best, most prestigious schools they could get into. But, well, you actually have to live there for four years.

The goal of college is personal and professional success. Personal success means a happy life for four years, full of growth and development. Do you prefer an urban, rural, or suburban environment? What kind of social life do you prefer? Do you like to hike, swim, ski? Are you a sports fan or a gamer? Where can you find like minds? How do you want to expand your horizons?

Professional success means setting yourself up to perform well in your career. It starts with knowing what you want to study. Do you know already? If so, you should target schools with great programs in that area. If you are less certain, you should be applying to schools with more options where you can delay your choice until you’re more sure. Other factors here are professional development opportunities, learning opportunities outside of the classroom, average class sizes, etc.

Applying to all 8 is, in a way, lazy. You could have done your research to figure out what schools would truly make you happy. Instead, you threw applications at the wall to see what stuck.

It is also somewhat self-centered. If you know there’s an Ivy that doesn’t fit, but you apply to boost your ego, you may be taking that spot from a student who really, really wants it. Yes, the spots at the most competitive schools in the country should go to the applicants who deserve them the most. But at the same time, applying to a school because it’s competitive just reinforces the current cycle of schools getting more and more competitive every year. There is no reason to apply to a school that isn’t a good fit.

It is terribly difficult to gain admission to an Ivy League school – many admissions officers at the most competitive schools in the country will tell you that if they threw out their entire admitted freshman class and let in a completely new one, their average GPA and SAT/ACT scores would not budge. Applying to 8 Ivies and Stanford – for anyone whose father’s name isn’t on a library – runs the risk of gaining 0 admissions. Or worse – the only Ivy you get into is one you’d be miserable at, but you go because it’s an Ivy League school.

If you apply to too many schools that don’t fit, you may end up having to transfer. Like these students. Or this one.

There is no substitute for research during the college admissions process. Be introspective, go visit schools, and think about the type of academic, social, and personal environment that will allow you to be successful. Talk with mentors and trusted people in your life to gain perspective. Scour these schools’ websites to find what activities you can engage in outside the classroom.

Because for the students who got into all 8 Ivies, the work has just begun. No doubt they feel tremendous validation at being deemed worthy by some of the most competitive schools in the country. But now they need to ask themselves: which one fits?

Need some advice determining what colleges may be a good fit for you personally? Contact us today!

Ivy League Admissions Landscape 2017

Ivy League 2021 Stats.png

Ivy League 2020 Stats.png

Colleges have released their decisions for the 2017 school year. Seniors are making final decisions on where to attend next fall, and juniors are beginning to look forward to applying themselves. Sophomores and freshmen may or may not be thinking of college yet, but they are working hard in their classes and activities. In their own way, every high school student is preparing for the next step in the college admissions process.

For the parents of those who haven’t applied yet, there’s a lot we can learn from trends in this year’s admissions to the Ivy League schools: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. While most students do not aim for the Ivies, they have always been a good benchmark for trends among the most selective schools in the country.

Let’s check out some of this year’s trends:

More applicants every year

As has been the case for what seems like forever, the Ivy League schools saw an overall increase in the number of applicants.

The eight Ivy League schools received a total of 281,060 applications, an increase of 8020 from the 2016 total of 273,040. Note that this is not the total number of students who applied. That number would be much smaller because many students apply to multiple Ivies at once.

Cornell saw the highest uptick in applicants, enticing 47,038 students to apply for the fall of 2017, an increase of 2,072 from its already Ivy-leading total of 44,966 last year. This is typical, as Cornell is the biggest of the Ivies to begin with.

Among Ivy League schools, only Dartmouth had a lower number of total applicants than in years past. Dartmouth had 20,034 total applicants, down 641 from 20,675 last year.

It is no surprise that the biggest increase in applicants happened at Cornell, which has in recent years drawn more applicants than any other Ivy. Likewise, the only school where the number of applicants shrunk, Dartmouth, has historically drawn the fewest applicants.

Acceptance rates down

More applicants at schools that do not grow very fast means one thing: a lower overall rate of admission. Ivy League schools are only getting more competitive. The overall acceptance rate for Ivy League schools dropped from 8.47% to 8.11% in 2017.

Interestingly, the total number of students accepted across the Ivies is also down. This year, the Ivies accepted 22,805 students, down 324 from last year’s 23,129. Harvard (19), Penn (32), and Yale (200) are the only schools to let in more students than last year.

One might expect the schools who admitted more students to all have a slightly higher admissions rate. Yet, among the Ivies, only Yale raised its overall admissions rate, from 6.27% in 2016 to 6.91% in 2017. All seven other schools saw a lower overall admissions rate in 2017.

It seems that the demand for an Ivy League education continues to outstrip the supply that these schools can provide. This year, Yale was the only Ivy to chip away at that problem, as its inflated acceptance total is a result of two new residential colleges opening for the Class of 2021. Kudos, Yale.

Early Action and Early Decision more popular than ever 

[Editor’s note: When comparing the data for EA / ED applicants and acceptances for 2017 and 2016, we excluded the Columbia data from 2016 since we do not have its data for 2017. We believe this makes for a more accurate comparison. This will explain any discrepancies between numbers reported in this section and the above chart. We will update this article if and when Columbia’s data becomes available.]

In many schools with an Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) policy in place, applying early can increase your chances of admission. This is the case for every single Ivy League school that reported data (i.e. excluding Columbia). In 2017, these schools saw an EA / ED acceptance rate on average over 9.96% higher than their regular decision acceptance rate.

No surprise that this makes early policies very popular among Ivy League schools, some of the most competitive in the world.

With the exception of Penn, every single Ivy received more EA / ED applicants in 2017 than in 2016. Penn received exactly the same number of early applicants (a very unlikely outcome)!

This past year, the growth of EA / ED applications (8.21%) far outpaced the growth of regular decision applications (2.18% growth).

The competitive advantage of EA / ED is down

For our purposes, we define “the competitive advantage of EA / ED” as the acceptance rate for EA / ED minus the acceptance rate for Regular Decision applicants. Essentially, this shows us what kind of difference it makes to apply EA / ED.

Overall, the competitive advantage of applying EA / ED to an Ivy League school (excluding Columbia) decreased significantly, from 14.22% in 2016 to 9.96% in 2017

Only three of the Ivies saw a increase in the competitive advantage of EA / ED, meaning that applying early helped more at these schools than in previous years: Brown, Dartmouth, and Penn. Note that even though the competitive advantage of EA / ED decreased at the other Ivies, there still is a significant competitive advantage to applying early to all of these schools.

The decrease in competitive advantage may be because of the increased number of EA / ED applications relative to the total pool. While the total number of EA / ED apps submitted increased at almost all Ivies (by a total of 2,242 applications, excluding Columbia),  the total number of EA / ED apps admitted did not keep pace (increasing by only 211, excluding Columbia) from 2016 to 2017.

We will be very interested to see where this trend goes in future years. Will Ivies start admitting even more students early, or will they begin to promote their early admission policies less?

One final note on Early Decision: remember that Early Decision is binding, meaning that you must attend a school if you are accepted Early Decision. It’s easy to be enticed by the greater admissions rate, but you should only apply to a school Early Decision if it is your surefire number one school. Early Action is non-binding, so you still keep your freedom of choice if you apply Early Action.


So what can students who are not applying to Ivy League schools take away from all this?

When the Ivies get more competitive (as shown by lower admissions rates), there is a trickle-down effect. The elite students who apply to these schools become less confident, and apply to more “target” or “likely” schools, thus inflating the average SAT/ACT scores and GPA’s for these schools. So we can expect other schools to follow suit and become more competitive, as has been the trend for many, many years.

Also, more students are applying to Ivy League schools every year, but there are also more students applying to most other schools every year. This only feeds into the cycle of increased competitiveness – the applicant pool grows much more quickly than the schools themselves, so every year the amount of applicants who cannot be accepted grows.

One final word of advice: the most competitive, prestigious school is not necessarily the best fit. With colleges more selective than ever, it is more important than ever that students do their research and apply to schools that they can actually see themselves attending.

Rankings are great, and in many fields a degree from a more prestigious school is certainly a benefit when you enter the job market. Still, at the end of the day, students get from their college experience what they put into it. You should never select a school based on rankings alone – always do your research!

Want to learn more about trends in Ivy League admissions? We’ll be posting a new school-by-school breakdown every week in the coming months, digging deeper on trends in admissions at the Ivies and other popular and competitive schools.

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Any questions? Contact us today!

College Application Roadmap

The following is a checklist of college prep tasks for juniors to focus for the rest of the school year and summer. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions!


  • Start studying for AP and SAT Subject Tests.
  • The April ACT is the 8th. Scores come back starting the 17th.
  • Talk with teachers who you want to write recommendation letters.
  • Meet with your guidance counselor – they are writing a recommendation, too!
  • Plan college visits during spring break.



  • Finals and end of school year celebrations.
  • The June SAT is the 3rd. The June ACT is the 10th.
  • SAT Subject tests are also available in June.
  • When school ends, start working on your college essays!



  • The Common App is available August 1st.
  • Supplements will be released throughout the month.
  • Aim to finish all application essays by the time school starts again.
  • The August SAT is the 26th.

An Open Letter to Senior Parents on College Decisions

Dear 12th Grade Parents,

We urge you to read this letter. It is not short, but it is important.

This letter is about your children’s college decisions. This is not in any way meant to promote our business

This is a week that will cause many emotions. It is the culmination of four years of hard work. As parents, here are a few things we urge you to remember:

It is not personal

Admissions officers have an unenviable task. Many at the top institutions will say that they reject hundreds of perfectly qualified and deserving applicants every year.

We know it is painful to watch your child deal with disappointment. For many, a “deny” shatters confidence.

This is not a time to be angry. Let your child process their emotions. Remind them it’s not personal. It’s competitive. It’s tough. And most importantly, no matter where they go to college, if they work hard and stay true to themselves, they will find happiness and success.

How to handle a waitlist:

If your child is waitlisted, there are a few steps to take beyond any instructions the college provides in the waitlist decision letter.

Write a letter to your regional admissions officer. Thank them for their continued consideration of your application. Reiterate that their school is your first choice college and you would attend if accepted. Update them on any recent significant achievements in and out of the classroom.

Have your guidance counselor advocate for you. Speak with them about reaching out to the college to fight for you.

Decisions on waitlisted students will most likely not be made until after May 1; prepare to have a deposit into another college while you are still waiting.

Pick the “best fit” college for your child (and family)

It is a lot different revisiting a school as an accepted student. There is a fresh mentality – and sometimes honors colleges and merit money.

The highest ranked school where your child is accepted may be the perfect fit for them. It also may not. Urge your child to think about where they will thrive academically, personally, and socially. Your child’s happiness is so important as they transition into college.

Once you pick your college, notify everywhere else you applied

This is SO important. There are students anxious on waitlists. Once you make your decision on where to go, contact the other colleges where your student received acceptances and inform them of your decision. It is not fair to waitlisted students to hold a spot you will never use.

Also remember that you have until May 1st to make a final decision. Do not feel pressured to make a decision before that deadline if you are not ready.


Eric, Karan, and Jim

Ivy Experience Founders Analyze the Recent ACT

Ivy Experience’s founders, Eric Karlan and Karan Shah, tackled the most recently released ACT to offer insight on its contents relative to past exams. Here are their thoughts on each section:




A LOT of punctuation questions. And a lot of questions to avoid redundancies and wordiness.

These are traditionally two of the most prominent types of questions on ACT English, so this only reinforces that students need to study and master these types of questions.


While being concise and straightforward was always important before on the ACT, the added emphasis on this should make moving through the test easier for students.




While the added statistics provide a new wrinkle to the test, the biggest thing that stood out to me was the shuffling of concepts throughout the test. While the concepts being tested are the same, some of the more advanced concepts are showing up earlier on the test, albeit in simpler forms.

I also noticed that for students who have a lot of the higher-level math equations memorized, a lot of questions become much simpler. Students who have not encountered this math can still use strategies to get them correct, but it would take a bit longer. While this was always the case on the ACT, it seemed like this latest exam had more opportunities where students could save time with these equations.


Aside from a greater emphasis on statistics-oriented questions in the final quarter of the test – the hardest questions on the Math section – I do not see a fundamental difference between this section and those from older tests.

For all the rumors about ACT Math getting so much harder, it remains overwhelmingly the same old content presented in the same old ways.




This is the first time I have seen the first passage – formerly “Prose Fiction” – be
changed to a “Literary Narrative” passage. It’s also the first time I have seen the first passage on Reading be separated into Passage A and B.

Incidentally, most students hate when the passages are split into two, and they also hate the first fictional passage. So hopefully those students were wise enough to skip over the first passage and save it for last, tackling the other passages first.

(Side note: how cool that two of the other passages were about the Grateful Dead and whales!)


The passages made more of an effort this time to come across as more ‘interesting’ to the students. They use unique topics that would not normally be included in the major ‘themes’ in which they are presented.




A couple of questions on this test required students to notice smaller facts that were included within the charts and graphs. While the questions did guide students where to look (the charts and figures), it was notable that they were challenging students to analyze and find smaller details.

This seemed like something more in line with what would show up on the Reading section as opposed to the Science section.


A lot more experimental procedure questions than I have seen in the past. Not necessarily logical reasoning (where there is some non-scientific thinking beyond the passage) or even science-based questions. Rather, they are questions to see if students could identify why certain steps and actions were being taken in the experiment.

Incidentally, this is a focal point of the SAT Math section – presenting charts and data and testing students on experiment procedures and certain data points’ significance.

Want to learn more about recent trends in the ACT and how best to prep for the test? Contact us today!

How to approach the Common App essays (2017-2018)

The Common App recently released its prompts for the 2017-2018 personal statement.

There are some revisions, and even two new prompts.

Here are some analyses of the seven prompts from Ivy Experience Essayologists Eric Karlan, Karan Shah, and Jim Wismer.

Click here to learn how you can work with Ivy Experience.

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change]

Once upon a time, the Common App had a “Topic of Your Choice” prompt. Then, for the past several years, they eliminated it.

Now, this year, the “Topic of Your Choice” prompt has officially returned. (See Prompt #7 below.)

So even though the wording of this prompt has not changed since last year, the circumstances under which you select this prompt are different.

Be thoughtful if you choose this prompt. The story you share needs to be incredibly meaningful and integral to you – the type of essay that would really move the person reading it.

The stakes are higher now for this prompt. If your response does not meet that high bar – if the reader is wondering why your essay is so essential to you – choose a different prompt.

– Eric

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]

This prompt used to focus solely on one word: failure. That was a pretty loaded word.

“Obstacles” softens it up. It allows flexibility and makes this prompt more accessible.

Nevertheless, the same pitfalls remain. You typically do not want your first introduction to someone to be about a failure. It is important to put your best foot forward, and discussing a ‘failure’ makes that difficult.

To write this prompt effectively, there need to be real stakes that led to substantive growth. Nothing trivial, like a hard class that cost you a good grade.

– Karan

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

I love this prompt. It invites some very personal and provoking stories.

The trap here is how students interpret the terms “belief” and “idea.” Some students get political or religious – two realms you generally want to stay away from since you never know the personal beliefs or biases of your admissions officers.

Other students get impersonal through philosophical rants. While that may make for a provoking piece, this is a PERSONAL statement. The focus needs to be on YOU.

Years ago, a student used this prompt to challenge the belief that comic books had no intellectually redeeming value. They reflected on their life experiences and how comic books had actually inspired so much intellectual exploration.

Needless to say, it was a memorable essay.

– Eric

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]

This was a new prompt last year, and it remains unchanged this year.

Like the “belief or idea” prompt, the word “problem” should not always be taken so seriously. A small problem can lead to profound reflection and significance.

Once again, remember to avoid ethical dilemmas unless you can make it about YOU.

– Jim

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

At last, Common App fixed this prompt – or attempted to, at least. They previously asked about a “transition from childhood to adulthood.”

This led to some boring answers…and other students recounting losing their virginity. In other words, this prompt did not yield much substance.

It is hard to see how this prompt is so distinguished from some of the other prompts. I worry that some students will default to sharing religious awakenings. Or that some responses will get too personal and self-indulgent.

Also remember that the college admissions officers mostly want to hear about your time in high school. “Growth” that happened before this time would most likely not be a good choice here. (There are always exceptions, but you really need to be careful and discerning.)

– Karan

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

There is a growing emphasis on intellectual engagement in application essays. This past year more than ever I heard that admissions officers, especially at the top universities and colleges, placed a high value on essays that captured intellectual vitality.

For students with unique intellectual interests and explorations – especially beyond the classroom – this is a perfect prompt and a refreshing opportunity to highlight individual pursuits of knowledge.

– Jim

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

It’s back!

I guess it’s an unsurprising development considering the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (the newly developed counterpart to the Common App – we’ll address this in another blog) chose to offer this prompt as an option for their personal essay.

This was by far and away the preferred Common App prompt for students for years.

Now that it’s back after a hiatus, though, I would issue these words of caution: do not choose this prompt unless you truly cannot fit your desired response into the other prompts.

If your essay is a natural response to another prompt, then the admissions officer may wonder if you even read the other prompts, at all.

Moreover, there is oftentimes greater creative potential within confines. The other prompts may seem limiting, but unique angles in responses can capture an admissions officer’s attention in a more powerful way.

– Eric